on February 28, 2003
It is nearly impossible to think objectively about Bill Clinton, the man or his administration. In THE NATURAL, Joe Klein, the once-anonymous author of PRIMARY COLORS, gives us a concise, balanced history of the Clinton presidency. He provides a fair account of Bill Clinton: we are not spared his self-pity or the scale of his appetites and indulgences, but we also see the seriousness and vision he brought to the nation's leadership.
The Clinton administration had a rocky beginning, noted for its naïve political blunders. Remember Travelgate? How about the mere possibility of universal health care? The Clintons relied heavily on their friends, who were not always the wisest or most capable choices. One of the strengths of THE NATURAL is its portrayal of key relationships. We learn a lot about the former president through Mr. Klein's account of his complex marriage and Mrs. Clinton's formidable, imperfect influence. He also describes the similarities and differences between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, who led the failed Republican revolution and masterminded one of the nastiest, most counter-productive political arenas in American history.
It is unfortunate that Bill Clinton's comprehensive understanding of economics will not be what history remembers about his presidency. Mr. Klein points out that balancing the budget was a tremendous gamble and the budget surplus Clinton left the next administration was unprecedented. His sound policies --- welfare reform, Internet commerce, the earned income tax credit --- provided a base for financial prosperity that we are unlikely to see again. One of the melancholy notes of the book is the sense of squandered talent and opportunity. What else might Bill Clinton have accomplished if he had not been so distracted?
Bill Clinton was under constant attack from the right wing and the scandal-hungry media. He fended off investigations into his avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War, his use of marijuana, his finances, his extramarital affairs, his wife's law practice and not one of the fanatics determined to destroy him made the slightest impact until he lied under oath about his affair with a White House intern. Why did he give his assailants such a wealth of ammunition to use against him? How could such a smart man make such a stupid mistake? We may never know what he was thinking, but the disappointment and disillusionment of the president's staff and supporters practically soak through the page.
The strange thing about THE NATURAL is how distant the Clinton presidency seems. September 11, 2001 was a moment of such enormous import in American history that the overwrought peccadilloes Bill Clinton became known for now seem trivial. Bill Clinton never faced a challenge to the presidency like al-Qaeda's attacks; he made his own challenges. It will take a much longer, more in-depth book to really examine Bill Clinton's complicated character, but THE NATURAL captures his administration, a time that is simultaneously recent history and a long time ago.
--- Reviewed by Colleen Quinn
This book isn't likely to please either Clinton's critics or defenders.
Joe Klein essentially argues that Bill Clinton was a man both of many virtues and many flaws, and I think that is a fair assessment of this book as well. On the one hand, this is perhaps the first attempt at a fair and reasoned understanding of who President Bill Clinton was. Most books on Clinton have either been poorly documented and badly researched attacks on him, or well documented and better researched books explaining how poorly documented and badly researched that first wave of books was. In other words, books like Conason and Lyons superb THE HUNTING OF THE PRESIDENT, provided a massive amount of documentation correctly the scurrilous attacks of Clinton's previous critics. These books, however, primarily say much, much more about Clinton's attackers and the attackers of the attackers rather than about Clinton himself. The great virtue of THE NATURAL is that Klein attempts to focus primarily on Clinton himself.
Bill Clinton disappointed Joe Klein. Clinton was, in Klein's estimation, enormously knowledgeable, intelligent, well intentioned, and insightful. Why, then, was Clinton not a great president? Klein has several answers to this. First, Clinton was never really tested as president. There was never a serious crisis facing the US during his eight years in the White House, nothing comparable to 9-11 or Pearl Harbor or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Therefore, there was a sense in which he was never tested. Klein does, however, point out that Clinton does not, perhaps, get the credit he deserves for his role in providing the US with eight of the most peaceful years in US history. Second, Klein shows a number reasons that Clinton was ineffective as president, Monica Lewinsky aside. For instance, his ability to see both sides of issue frequently made it difficult for him to decide which side he was going to come down on. Other problems include his love of meetings and intellectual jam sessions rather than making decisions; his inability to work well with the press; poor decisions regarding the make up of the White House Staff; his constant attention to polls and aligning his policies with them in mind.
On the other hand, Klein also wants to give Clinton his due. His two terms were eight years of unhindered economic growth, which Klein in part credits Clinton for because some key decisions he made. For instance, lowering the national debt and engendering surpluses, which made possible lower interest rates. He also praises him for the earned income credit, which was for all practical purposes a lower class tax cut for the working poor. In this instance, money was given to those in the greatest need, but to take advantage of it, one had to be working. Klein points to many other similar achievements that had a substantive effect on the US economy; not terribly sexy accomplishments, but having a very definite effect on the US economy nevertheless.
Some of the best sections of the book are Klein's discussions of and interviews with previous Senate and House Leaders from both sides of the aisle, who lament the decay of bipartisanship that was brought about by the Gingrich revolution. The criticism in this book is not partisan. In fact, there seems to be more regret on the part of the Republicans interviewed, like former GOP House Leader Bob Michel and Bob Dole, than by Democrats. I also found his reflections on why the Baby Boomers have yet to produce a truly great political leader comparable to leaders of previous generations.
The book, however, has some very serious organizational problems. In fact, it isn't clear that the book has any organization at all. There are chapter markings, but it isn't clear why. The topics and events covered flow into each other, and there is not clear demarcation of subjects. In short, the book seems to ramble from one topic to another, sometimes leaving a subject for good, sometimes returning to it at a later date. Nonetheless, this is a very interesting book that both Clinton's detractors and his defenders can read with profit. And the probably effect on any open-minded individual will be to make his critics a little more appreciative of his positive contributions, and his defenders a bit more critical of his presidency.
on December 29, 2002
In this publication Klein essentially presents a summary of the Presidential career of Bill Clinton. Any reader of previous Klein commentary knows that, on the whole, Klein likes Clinton a good deal; however, he avoids becoming an apologist that the likes of Frank Bruni and Bob Woodward seem to have become with President Bush. He makes available criticisms of Clinton--both political and ehtical--at least as quickly as he does praises. In the end, this seems to be the culmination of the very vivid picture that Klein has been painting of Bill Clinton the man and politician ever since _Primary Colors_. The prospective reader should note before beginning that there is no controversial argument at work here (apart from what is already controversial about the President), nor is _The Natural_ a systematic synthesis based on study of recent history; this is merely a summary of the events of Clinton's presidency with subsequent commentary. Particularly engrossing is the section just over halfway through the book in which Klein succintly recounts the history behind the presently bitter partisanship in Washington and the effect of the post-Watergate media on public and private political discourse. In the seventh chapter (of eight) Klein also begins to analyze Clinton with respect to his historical context--which quickly gets interesting--but stops abruptly (Klein clearly hasn't gotten this far with Clinton yet). I would surmise that most of the people that dislike this book do so because of their emnity towards Bill Clinton himself, but if you are looking for a summary of the era with generally just and honest commentary from a rational and balanced commentator, this isn't a bad place to begin.
on January 31, 2003
For someone who did not pay much attention to politics before 2000, I found this book very helpful. All I remember from the Clinton presidency is that the President seemed to be entangled in scandal constantly, and that the Republicans seemed to care far more about bringing him down in any way possible than about guarding the welfare of the country. Klein's breezily written book, while it does at points dwell on all of the scandal (how could it not?), fills in many of the lesser-known details about Clinton's vision and both his accomplishments and failures. I came away from this book feeling that the patchwork of disjointed memories I had concerning politics from 1992 to 2000 had now clicked into place in a coherent narrative. I also came away with a much better understanding of why most Americans think Clinton was a good President, whatever they might think about his personal character.
on March 8, 2002
Obviously, the biggest flaw of this book is Klein's attempt to conduct historical analysis a mere 1 year after the end of Clinton's presidency. And beyond that, the book could have been a good deal longer -- it comes in at a scant 217 pages.
Having said that, Klein does a decent, if not masterful, job of analyzing Clinton's presidency. Where it's strongest is in highlighting his list of acheivements, which, given all of the scandals, is important, since the biggest ones were not on the forefront of people's minds (defecit reduction, which led to the boom; bailout in Mexico; EITC, which is more important than you would have thought).
There was one thing that he highlighted that I found particularly compelling: "In 1986, a single mother who left welfare for work could expect to make about $1900 and lose her health benefits. In 1999, she gets $7000 more and keeps her health beniefits."
Anyway, if you're like me -- a moderate-liberal who liked Clinton but was highly disappointed by his presidency -- you'll find it crystallizes what you thought of him. If you hated the guy, at least you'll have a better understanding of what he DID accomplish.
And lastly, Klein is at least a smooth and succinct writer, so it's a good read. Not great or monumental; it won't ever stand as the definitive analysis of his presidency; but, given the fact that it is only a year later, it's moderately insightful.
on July 19, 2002
I am a fan of Joe Klein's from his columns in the New Yorker magazine and bought his book after just finishing First in His Class by David Morannis, the biography of Bill Clinton from birth the his announcement that he would seek the presidency in 1991. I enjoyed Klein's book and in fact read it in two quick days. However, it was somewhat disappointing. While clearly not intended to be exhaustive, it was meant to clarify and synthesize Clinton's policy making decisions during his 8 years in office as well as their political overtones. While most of the major content areas are present and accounted for (e.g. failed health insurance reform, welfare reform, effect of the Lewinsky scandal, etc.), the synthesis is hard to find and make sense of. Klein seems to be arguing that Clinton's efforts became less grandiose and more effective as he learned how be a good president, but simultaneously continued to demonstrate his personal flaws and shoot himself in the foot. This is not really a novel conclusion, and probably not worthy of a whole book. If Klein's thesis is more complicated than this, it is not well articulated in the book, and better editing is needed. More likely, future books will tackle this topic more effectively as history provides more of a context for Clinton's accomplishments and failings. Buy this book only if you are truly curous about Clinton now and can't wait for other authors to complete their work.
on January 9, 2003
THE NATURAL was an enjoyable enough but misnamed book. "The Natural" seems to refer to Clinton's natural proficiency as a political operator, yet Klein details the up and down, tumultuous presidency that we all remember. Clinton's first two years were not that of a "natural," nor was low point of his presidency leading up to his admission of an affair with "that woman."
The subtitle, "the misunderstood presidency," is also misleading. This book reveals no great new interpretation of the Clinton era but rather sums up the conventional wisdom: Bill Clinton was a good, substantive president who failed to live up to his full potential and disappointed a lot of people with his personal behavior.
While the title of THE NATURAL creates unmet expectations, the book serves a useful function. In just over 200 pages, it captures the major themes and flavors of the Clinton presidency, gives just enough supporting evidence to back up Klein's instructive but not especially groundbreaking insights, and serves as the outline for what could be a truly great future book. This book serves as a reminder of what the Clinton years were like (seemingly so long ago), but the book itself will probably not endure as especially memorable.
THE NATURAL won't endure because it is so short and light on details. Joe Klein is a reporter, not an historian and the book reads like an extended ATLANTIC MONTHLY article. This is not altogether bad - I felt like reading the book pretty much straight through as I would an article. But the potential for a detailed, Robert Caro style biography of Clinton is a tempting future volume waiting for someone else to write.
One final note: it bears mentioning that Klein seems admiring of Clinton. Where Klein writes disapprovingly, he seems like a disappointed - almost betrayed - true believer. He's clearly fascinated by Clinton and has a vision for what he could have been. This admiring fascination becomes a little much when Klein begins shilling for the New Democratic movement. Klein's journalistic credentials were hurt with the revelation that he wrote PRIMARY COLORS. THE NATURAL doesn't help, but this kind of a book may be a good medium for his talents.
on March 16, 2003
Joe Klein, journalist and author of "Primary Colors," has written a very light and easy-to-read book about the Clinton presidency. This book is not a tell all, nor does it document all the facts of Clinton's two terms. Instead, in broad strokes, Klein wants to capture a fairly big or overall portrait of the Clinton presidency. With some exceptions, he seems to do a fine job.
The book essentially reads like an extended Newsweek article. It is not very meaty, the sentences are short and simple, and one could easily read this book on a longer plane ride. Klein takes us from Arkansas where Clinton was preparing for the primaries, though two terms at the White House, and through key moments of the Clinton Presidency such as healthcare reform, reelection, Lewinsky, and legislative battles. In short, it is a broad overview and not a detailed account of Clinton's eight years.
Somewhere in the middle of the book Klein takes a serious right turn for about twenty pages and discusses Newt Gingrich's rise to power. Frankly, I thought the subject could have been handled in half the pages. The tangent is interesting, but I really don't see how it adds much to Klein's account of Clinton's presidency. The twenty pages might have been better used by looking at another aspect of a presidency that continues to ignite debates and stir emotions.
The other disappointing aspect of this book is the author's word choice. The book is easy and light reading, but every five or so pages, like clockwork, we see some odd language use that is seriously out of place. We hear about "North Carolina's antediluvian Visigoth senator..." somewhere toward the end of the book. This is but one example, but many more can easily be found throughout. Other reviewers provide such examples and I won't reiterate. I'll just say that nobody talks like this, and I can't help but wonder why an accomplished writer would want to write like this. The language is seriously out of place relative to the rest of the book.
That said, Klein's view of the Clinton presidency is interesting even if there are no new arguments or insights. Klein is certainly one of a small number of people in a position to write such a book. He was there, alongside Clinton in a sense, from start to finish. As a result, we get an interesting perspective and an enjoyable read.
This book is certainly worth reading. Little annoyances aside, I am glad I took the time to learn more about this presidency. In a sense, it makes me look forward to Clinton's autobiography. I suspect the story of Bill Clinton is far from finished.
on March 22, 2002
As an avid reader of everything Bill Clinton, I have been looking forward to the publication of this book for the past 6 months. It is a quick read and an interesting book, but often reads like a Clinton press release on how he was "misunderstood" (this is obvious from the beginning when you read the full title).
The anecodtes are great, and the policy discussion is refreshing to find in a mass-media book like this. Yet, Klein does make a few lapses. He repeatedly talks about the "self-destructive behavior" of the GOP when they pushed for impeachment, while at the same time decrying the behavior of the President. He fails to convey how those favoring impeachment were self-destructive or wrong in their pursuit - he just assumes the reader will join him in this assumption.
Nonetheless, this is a good book that does an excellent job covering Clinton's personal transformation during his presidency. I finished this book wishing it were longer!
on April 5, 2002
Joe Klein does a very good job unpacking the enigma William Jefferson Clinton. Like many people, I wonder how someone who was so gifted in so many ways could be so recklessly foolish in so many others. Also, Klein, without resorting to psychobabble, illuminates some of the dynamics of the Clinton marriage as well as how many of Clinton's political enemies managed to inflict much more damage on themselves than on the object of their fury. A few days ago there was a report in the press about a recent Clinton restaurant encounter with Lucianne Goldberg, the woman to whom Linda Tripp was talking about what she knew. By all accounts, Clinton was his usual charming self and exchanged pleasantries with one of his most infamous opponents. This is vintage Clinton and readers of Klein's book will come away with a clearer sense of his capacity to triumph over those who loathed him. If you're a political junkie, you'll find this a good read.